Community-based organizing is a powerful way to mobilize people in the fight for social justice. It’s easier to engage people when they can see and feel problems. When your neighbors are being pushed out of affordable housing, you can see that displacement is about power—who has it and who doesn’t—and not just the impersonal rules of the market. When city zoning regulations makes gentrification worse, you can feel that the rules weren’t made with your community in mind.
Although impersonal situations like these are neighborhood-wide, systemic issues, activist groups can engage and mobilize people to win these local fights. This fact has been one of the foundations of building movements that are focused on community-based activism.
But we have always known that real change cannot come about with activism alone. We need to pair it with city and/or statewide policy change to solve neighborhood problems. Community activist groups have tried to grow their local work in coalitions, creating the power to take on issues at a bigger level. This approach has always had real strengths, and there are many examples of local groups that build a coalition to win big, bold city and statewide campaigns. But this approach also has real limitations as even successful issue-based coalitions end when the campaign is over, without creating or adding to a truly ongoing and intersectional movement.
In a time when there’s flourishing activism based on resistance and intersectionality, local community organizing models must be pushed even further. It is now clearer than ever that we can’t talk about local fights without basing them in an understanding of how and why groups are marginalized, and how, for example, racial injustice, class inequity, environmental racism, and immigrant discrimination and violence are usually at the root of it all.
It’s no coincidence that the people who live in an area that is being rezoned are more often than not low-income or from marginalized populations.
Last month, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD)—where I work as a communications associate—used the 10th anniversary of the launch of its organizing training and support institute to change its name from the Center for Neighborhood Leadership to the Center for Community Leadership. It doesn’t sound like a big change, but it represents what ANHD has learned about how to effectively train and support community organizers so they have the foundation to move beyond place-based community organizing.
When ANHD founded the community organizing institute, it knew local groups needed better infrastructure to attract, develop, and retain leaders who were dedicated to building grassroots power and tackling pressing neighborhood-based and citywide issues. ANHD is a coalition of neighborhood-based nonprofit and activist groups that are working on affordable housing and equitable economic development issues across New York City, so it seemed appropriate for the institute to be rooted in place-based organizing techniques and theory. But over the years, the institute’s reach was spreading beyond ANHD’s membership and core issues. While ANHD’s areas of focus did expand beyond housing into community development, the institute was creating a more robust and diverse learning environment to address social justice and community development needs more fully. There is still great value in placed-based community organizing, but ANHD realized that it wanted to create space to explore other models without putting them in conflict with each other.
Movement building is about relationships, the inter-personal. But community organizing in particular can feel isolating. That’s one reason why ANHD has always used a model that facilitates a feeling of collectivism, and part of that means recognizing that we can build power with people who don’t live in our neighborhoods. None of us are single-issue people, so why would our organizing be that way? We have multiple identities and so do the people we’re organizing. A domestic worker who lives in northern Manhattan is not only concerned with domestic-worker issues, such as labor rights and race and gender equity. They’re also concerned with rezoning in their neighborhood and whether they and their neighbors will be displaced. Also, while they might be working on issues for domestic workers in New York City specifically, they could also be tapping into the national movement. Our work, our lives, and our organizing is intersectional.
Place-based organizing is important because people experience things at the interpersonal level first. A person who doesn’t have heat in their apartment might realize that their neighbors don’t have heat either, nor does the entire apartment building down the street, and that all of them have the same landlord. And then through the work of organizing, they realize all the buildings owned by this particular landlord don’t have heat, or tenants are being harassed out of their apartments. Organizing is recognizing the bigger picture—creating the connections between places and people.
But it’s not only about where people live. It’s about where they work, or how they get to their jobs and homes. Intersectionality becomes an important piece of this—identities matter in our ability to access those physical spaces. The experience of a white woman in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn is different than that of a Black queer woman, and how that space interacts with each of them will be profoundly different as well. It’s no coincidence that the people who live in an area that is being rezoned often have low-incomes or are from marginalized populations.
That’s why ANHD has paid particular attention to the fact that organizing will ultimately be more effective and more grounded in a true commitment to justice if the primary actors are people who are directly affected by injustice and those who come from marginalized communities. The institute focuses on helping participants come as they are and build the skills and competencies they need to do their work in the community in a way that makes sense for their unique circumstances.
One important step is to have programs with rigorous approaches to skills-building and intentional strategies for training, supporting, and promoting leaders of color. The Center for Community Leadership (CCL) offers a 10-month organizing apprenticeship program for new organizers, as well as an advanced program. More than 90 people have graduated from the apprenticeship program, with 86 percent of those apprentices finding full-time employment in the movement after graduation, and many later becoming lead organizers or directors of organizing departments. Roughly 85 percent of graduates are leaders of color.
Oppressive systems teach people to be small, stripping them of their voices and power while simultaneously obscuring the contributions of marginalized people. That’s why the center sees leadership more broadly and takes chances with nontraditional leaders. CCL staff, training materials, and guest speakers all reflect diverse backgrounds, creating an environment where the program’s participants can see their identities reflected in positions of leadership and expertise. CCL staff sets aside time to talk explicitly about things like race, class, systems of oppression, and more.It can be hard to jump from understanding oppression at the individual or building level to the complex levers of the larger capitalist system. That’s why CCL is intentional and doesn’t take shortcuts—programs are 10 months for this very reason.
Communities of color are under near constant attack, and we don’t all have the luxury of thinking exclusively about theory. However, we also know that a coherent organizing model is essential for effective organizing work. CCL marries organizing theories with the messy work of real-life organizing, rather than teaching one neat and static theory. CCL intentionally avoids having a dogmatic approach; instead it helps participants learn to innovate and tailor their work to meet the needs of their communities. For instance, CCL sessions on popular and political education are not structured in such a way that the instructor would teach and the students would listen. Rather, the classes are structured around dialogue and discourse. Because CCL participants live the struggle every day, they constantly push training staff to think more broadly and examine our own assumptions and orthodoxies. For instance, one instructor extended a morning session into a full-day session so the class could talk through the dynamics of working with lawyers and in coalitions as part of the program’s larger section on campaigns, something that wasn’t originally planned.
Once a week, a group of 10 to 12 apprentices—all from different neighborhoods like Morrisania in the Bronx or Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, and different economic and ethnic backgrounds—come together to talk about the experiences they had at their host organizations the four days prior. They share, they cry, they laugh, they dance, they sing, they learn. They are encouraged to have their local community organizing efforts join issues-based coalitions. They make connections with each other personally and professionally to make that effort easier and more meaningful. They come up with solutions to problems plaguing our world that transcend physical spaces. They build communities, and they build power.
This article appears in the Spring 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Subscribe here.